SEATTLE (Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Friday allowed a lawsuit against two former military psychologists who developed the CIA s interrogation program during George W. Bush s presidency to proceed, handing a victory to two former prisoners who said they were tortured in secret prisons abroad.
U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush s decision to deny a motion to dismiss the case represented a step forward in a years-long effort to hold individuals accountable for a program that the American Civil Liberties Union said resulted in the torture of at least 119 men from 2002 until it was ended in 2008.
The interrogation program s architects said it did not amount to torture. The prisoners were considered terrorism suspects.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit last October on behalf of three men, Tanzanian Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Libyan Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, who it said suffered lasting psychological and physical damage, andAfghan Gul Rahman, who died in 2002 in CIA custody from hypothermia caused by dehydration and exposure to cold.
The ACLU asserted that former U.S. Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen encouraged the CIA “to adopt torture as official policy” and made millions of dollars in the process.
The ACLU said the program used such methods as starvation, beating, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and water dousing to break the will of prisoners.
The lawsuit seeks damages of at least $75,000 for the men, who were all held in CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan.
Quackenbush sided with the former prisoners following a two-hour hearing in Spokane, Washington, and said the discovery process in the case could begin soon, an ACLU lawyer said.
Attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen had argued that decisions around the interrogation plan were made by the CIA and the military, and that the psychologists under contract to the agency did not commit the acts, the Guardian newspaper reported.
The newspaper quoted ACLU attorney Dror Ladin as saying that the psychologists were “not merely suggesting” the program “but designing it and being paid. … There s no argument that the defendants were not deeply involved in the program.”
In the past, the U.S. government has argued that similar cases would jeopardize national security if allowed to proceed.
The Justice Department, which was not named in the suit, this month asked the court in a filing to consider “the interests of the United States” in relation to classified information that may emerge during the discoveryprocess in which lawyers obtain evidence.
A 2014 U.S. Senate report stated the CIA paid $80 million to a company run by two former U.S. Air Force psychologists without experience in interrogation or counter-terrorism. U.S. intelligence sources later identified the psychologists as Mitchell and Jessen. The company was Mitchell Jessen & Associates of Spokane.
The ACLU said Salim was abducted by the CIA and Kenyan security forces in Somalia in March 2003. It said Ben Soud was captured in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid in April 2003.